social good marketing is greenwashing
Recently I've been dealing with a really unpleasant situation regarding a company that reached out to me for collaboration.

Their marketing looked good: they produce eco-friendly accessories in the USA through a program that empowers marginalized women.

What's not to like about that? After all, the US has strict labor laws that ensure that people are being paid, at the very least, 7 or 8 dollars an hour.

But as the narrative unfolded, I learned something that didn't sit well with me: these accessories were made in a women's prison.

I spoke at length with the owner of the company*, who assured me that the women were being paid a competitive wage, were free to choose not to work, and provided positive feedback about their experience in the program.

This all sounded great, but I wasn't sure what it meant to receive a competitive wage. I reached out to the factory manager, who informed me that, while the women technically receive a base wage of $8.00 an hour, due to prison politics and budgeting regulations, their take home pay is only $1.50 an hour. The rest of their wages go to paying off court fees and toward room and board at the prison (note that prisoners outside of this factory program are not responsible for room and board costs).

There are a few things to unpack here:
  • The women report that they're satisfied with their jobs. However, this is their best opportunity for paid labor within the prison walls, so they don't have a lot to compare it to.
  • The women's wages may help pay off some of their debts, but the room and board fees don't make sense since the majority of prisoners are not responsible for these costs.
  • Companies who contract with the prison program are responsible for paying the base wage, but a lot of that wage ends up going to the prison, not the employees.
  • As this article from last fall points out, prisoners are disproportionately people of color jailed for minor drug offenses. Prison labor, even if it offers some benefit to prisoners, looks an awful lot like institutionalized slavery or, at the very least, legal indentured servitude.

Ultimately, I chose not to partner with the brand. The US Prison System is a blight on our society, and doesn't live up to our purported "American values." To benefit from the labor of prisoners who do not receive a living wage, while it may offer them an opportunity they wouldn't have otherwise, ultimately buoys up a corrupt system. In my mind, it would be much better to work with previously incarcerated individuals to offer job training and support, similar to what Bee Love does (Read my post about beelove here.)

But this opens up a much bigger question, and this is what's been eating me up for last few weeks:

How do you know that an ethically branded company is being honest with you?

After all, the majority of companies that market themselves as eco-friendly, social good brands don't have an independent certification to prove it. In most cases, you can't physically go visit their factories. You are relying on the truthfulness and knowledge of the brand owner or customer service representative.

Let me be blunt: ethical is a marketing angle.

And marketing by its nature exists to fool us into thinking that consumption is good for us, that it's a positive force. I am very fearful that this "ethical-washing" has - or will soon become - so abundant that it's impossible to tell which claims are verifiable. It's already a problem. Without consistent, centralized certifications and uniform definitions for the jargon in this space, it's increasingly difficult to separate the truly forward thinking, ethical companies from the ones who are simply jumping on the bandwagon.

Yes, the dedicated few of us who spend most of our spare time thinking about and shopping from "ethical" companies might consider doing what I did in this case: contacting the owner and following up with other people in the supply chain. But I don't think we can, or should, expect the everyday consumer to do this work. It's rather time consuming and you have to prepare the right questions in advance.

And then there's the issue of confusing the administration of basic human rights with actual progress. In the case of the accessories company, the claims aren't exactly wrong. They do technically pay a decent wage (though not a living wage) through a program that has the potential to empower women.


But why do we think we're heroes for treating people like human beings?

We are too quick to think that small actions born of good intentions are inherently impactful. But this isn't always true.

I've said it before and I'll say it again:

Shopping in a way that does no harm is not a radical act. It is baseline. It is the bare minimum. It is basic human decency.

Saying something is fine and saying something is ethical are different things. We have this tendency to think that moving the bar from obviously exploitative to basically ok is a great moral act, and that we deserve to reward ourselves for "disrupting" the industry. But what we should be hoping for is to move the ticker from basically ok to human flourishing.

Abundant Imagination

I'm not saying that progress has to happen in a day. But we need to start operating from a place of abundant imagination, from a mindset that the change that needs to come may not have been conceived of yet.

We need to trust that we are capable of more.

This is different than asking for absolute perfection. We don't need to be holding people, agencies, and brands to rigid, impossible standards. Rather, we need to be pushing them to ask hard questions about their supply chain; to envision what sustainable infrastructure looks like in the unique contexts of culture, country, and industry; and to be collaborative and creative in their thinking. This may mean that individual supply chains and corporate structures will look different, and that's ok. But that doesn't excuse them from maintaining universal standards of human and environmental rights.

Better than nothing simply doesn't cut it anymore.

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*I chose to withhold the name of the company because I believe they are good people who are legitimately trying to create a beneficial brand. While I don't feel comfortable with their business model, I do not believe they deserve a public calling-out at this time.